"You are beautiful, my love, like Tirtza"
Readers in Chutz LaAretz can find this year's Bemidbar shiur at this link. Shabbat shalom!
A. The Location of the Inauguration of the Mishkan in Sefer Bamidbar
In our parasha we arrive at what seems to be the conclusion of the lengthy process of building the Mishkan and its inauguration. However, it is in fact only in chapter 8, with the anointment and readying of the Levi'im, that this great endeavor is finally over. Thereafter, in chapter 9, we read about those who, for reasons of ritual impurity, were unable to participate in the Pesach sacrifice at the proper time. Chapter 10 records the instructions for the journeying of the camps, and this is immediately followed by a description of the journey itself – i.e., the major part of Sefer Bamidbar, which covers the journey towards the land of Canaan. In the meantime, we have not yet moved past the stage of getting the camp organized, including the establishment of the Mishkan.
The end of the process of putting up the Mishkan, as set forth in our parasha, raises two main difficulties with regard to the chronology of the Torah and the structure of the text.
The first difficulty concerns the insertion of this unit, dealing with the establishment of the Mishkan, in Sefer Bamidbar. The inauguration of the Mishkan was described in chapters 8-10 of Sefer Vayikra: first we read about the "days of consecration," followed by the inauguration of the Mishkan itself. Why, then, do we find in our parasha, in chapter 7 of Sefer Bamidbar, a unit that opens with the words, "And it was, on the day that Moshe had finished setting up the Mishkan…," and which deals with the anointment of the Mishkan, the gifts of the princes of the tribes to the Mishkan, and their sacrifices in honor of its establishment? This unit would seem to belong to the story of the inauguration of the Mishkan, in Sefer Vayikra.
The second difficulty pertains to the lack of chronological order in Sefer Bamidbar itself. The Sefer opens with the date of the census of Bnei Yisrael: "On the first [day] of the second month, in the second year…" (Bamidbar 1:1). The date of the inauguration of the Mishkan, as we learn from the end of Sefer Shemot, is the first of Nissan:
"On the first day of the first month you shall establish the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting" (Shemot 40:1).
In other words, the story in our parasha, in chapter 7, describing the anointing of the Mishkan and the gifts of the princes, actually took place before the events described in chapter 1. What is the meaning of this strange order? Why is the census not described in its chronological place, after the end of the establishment of the Mishkan?
We shall leave the above questions for another time, and will focus here on a brief episode recorded at the beginning of chapter 7 – the bringing of the wagons by the princes. The commentators have generally not attributed great importance to this narrative, but I believe that it is worthy of close attention. As we shall see below, the Sages do note its ideological importance.
In future shiurim we shall connect the idea to be developed below with other episodes in Sefer Bamidbar, and we will see that they are integrally connected to each other.
B. The "Offering of the Wagons"
The Torah describes the gifts of the princes with the following words:
And it was, on the day when Moshe had finished putting up the Mishkan, and anointed it and consecrated it and all of its vessels, as well as the altar and all of its vessels, and anointed them and consecrated them, that the princes of Israel, the heads of the house of their fathers - who were the princes of the tribes, over those who were numbered – sacrificed (va-yakrivu) and brought their offering (va-yaviu et korbanam) before God: six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two princes, and an ox for each one of them, and they brought (va-yakrivu) them before the Mishkan. And God said to Moshe: Take [it] from them, that they may be for serving in the service of the Tent of Meeting, and you shall give them to the Levi'im, to each man in accordance with his service. So Moshe took the wagons and the oxen and gave them to the Levi'im. Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the sons of Gershon, in accordance with their service. And four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the sons of Merari, in accordance with their service, by the hand of Itamar, son of Aharon the Kohen. And to the sons of Kehat he did not give, for the service of the Sanctuary was theirs; they carried it upon their shoulders.
In this brief unit there is tension between the beginning and the end:
Verses 2 and 3 deal with the bringing of the sacrifices by the princes, as we understand from the words "they sacrificed," "they brought their offering," and "they brought." In verses 4-9 the main subject suddenly changes, and the Torah starts talking about the wagons and the oxen that the princes have brought, and their integration into the Mishkan's fixed procedures for journeying and carrying. Only afterwards, in verses 12-87, does the Torah get back to the sacrifices of the princes, and there it lists them.
This tension gives rise to a question: did the princes intend to bring the sacrifices only, with the wagons being used only to transport them as far as the Mishkan, or was it their intention to bring the wagons as a contribution to be used for carrying the Mishkan, in addition to the sacrifices and without connection to them?
Ramban grapples with these two possibilities:
"Perhaps we should interpret, 'They brought their sacrifice before God; six covered wagons' to mean six large wagons bearing their sacrifices, 'And twelve oxen' – drawing the wagons. But they bring the full wagons and the oxen before the Mishkan, and God commands Moshe, 'Take it from them' – meaning, all of it. The wagons and the oxen, which were not for sacrificing, would be for performing the service of the Tent of Meeting. Thereafter the princes took their sacrifices from the wagons and brought them before the Mishkan, for they had thought to offer it all on that same day when they were permitted to sacrifice. But God commanded (verse 11), 'One prince per day shall offer,' and therefore there was no need now to say, 'Take it from them.'"
According to this explanation, the main purpose of the princes was to bring their sacrifices; the wagons came only for the purpose of placing the sacrifices on them. The wagons were left redundant, and so God instructed Moshe to set them aside for carrying the Mishkan. According to this view, the words, "They brought their sacrifice" refer to the sacrifices which were upon the wagons, not the wagons themselves.
However, Ramban senses the tension in this unit, and so he proposes a different explanation:
"'And the princes of Israel… sacrificed… and brought their sacrifice before God' – Since the wagons were for the purpose of the sacrifice, they are called a 'sacrifice,' as in, 'We have brought a sacrifice to God, each [bringing] whatever he has found – vessels of gold…' (Bamidbar 31:50) – a sacrifice for the maintenance of the Mishkan. Here, the princes thought that it did not make sense for the Levi'im to carry the boards and planks of the Mishkan on their shoulders, since they were very heavy, so they brought wagons, of their own accord, for it is the practice of all who bear royal dwellings and their tent abodes to carry them on wagons."
In his second explanation, Ramban proposes that the wagons are a gift in their own right. According to this view, the words, "They brought their sacrifice," refer to the wagons. We may take his explanation a step further and suggest that the Torah uses the term "sacrifice" since this was an instance of setting aside (hekdesh) of the wagons for the purposes of Mishkan service, and not just to carry the sacrifices.
While the gift of the sacrifices is quite understandable, we must ask why the princes wanted – according to Ramban's second explanation – to give the wagons as a gift. What was their purpose in bringing the wagons?
Ramban offers two explanations. First, as a way of giving honor to the Mishkan, "Since it is the custom of kings that those they honor be borne on wagons," and second, because of the great weight – "Since they were very heavy."
Both explanations seem logical enough, but on the more philosophical level, the initiative still demands some clarification. How could the princes think of bringing wagons for carrying after God had already entrusted the bearing of the Mishkan to the Levi'im, and commanded them to carry it on their shoulders? The earlier command, concerning the carrying of the Mishkan on the shoulders of the Levi'im, raises a question as to the legitimacy of the princes' gift. As noted above, our Sages were sensitive to the important message of this unit, and they award great importance to this act of giving (Midrash Shir Ha-shirim). An examination of their interpretation will answer our question.
C. "You are Beautiful, my love, as Tirtza – when you so wish"
The Sages' view of our unit
As we know from midreshei Chazal, the "love" in Shir Ha-shirim refers to the nation of Israel. The beauty of Israel is compared, in Shir Ha-shirim, to "Tirtza" (6:4); this verse is interpreted in several different ways; we shall focus here on the interpretation that is related to our discussion above. According to this view, "like Tirtza" (ke-tirtza) is an expression made up of the same letters as the words, "ke-she'at rotza" (when you so wish):
"'You are beautiful, my love, as Tirtza' – [this means], when you so wish, you need not ask anything or request anything'). Who told them to bring wagons and oxen to transport the Mishkan? Did they not bring them on their own, as it is written (Bamidbar 7), 'They brought their sacrifice before God; six covered wagons' (corresponding to the six heavens) – but are they not seven? Rabbi Abon said… the number six corresponds to the six lands: 'eretz,' 'arka,' 'adama,' 'gai,' 'tzia,' 'neshiya,' 'tevel' and it is written (Tehillim 9), 'He judges the world (tevel) with justice.' Six corresponds to the six books of the Mishna; six corresponds to the six days of Creation; six corresponds to the six matriarchs – Sara, Rivka, Rachel, Leah, Zilpa, Bilha… and twelve oxen – corresponding to the twelve princes).
'A wagon for every two princes, and an ox for each one' – this teaches that they did not buy them; rather, this one brought an ox and that one brought an ox; this one brought a wagon and that one brought a wagon.
'And the brought them before the Mishkan' – this teaches that they gave them over to the public.
'And God said to Moshe, saying' – what is the meaning of the word 'saying'? God said to him, Go out and say to them words of praise and comfort. Rabbi Hoshaya said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said – I consider it as though I had to bear the [weight of the] world, and now you have brought Me [wagons].
At that moment Moshe was fearful. He said to himself: Perhaps the spirit of Divine inspiration has left me and settled upon the princes, or perhaps some prophet has arisen and taught this law. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Moshe, had I told them that they should bring, I would have said to you that you should tell them. However, 'Take it from them and it shall be…' (Bamidbar 7:5). What is the meaning of, 'Take it from them' – that it was their own initiative, 'From them'…" (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba [Vilna], parasha 6)
According to Chazal, the gift of the princes presented some difficulty for Moshe. Thus far, all of the laws and commandments had been given by God. The giving of the wagons, which the princes brought in order for the Mishkan to be carried on them, creates a new situation: the princes are trying to create a new halakha that has no source in God's command.
Moshe is not familiar with this sort of dynamic in the creation of halakha. Is this a legitimate development? Can he accept the gift? Chazal intensify Moshe's dilemma, placing the following thoughts in his heart:
"Perhaps the spirit of Divine inspiration has left me and settled upon the princes, or perhaps some prophet has arisen and taught this law."
Without Divine inspiration or prophecy it is not possible, according to Moshe's primal understanding, to accept the gift and to recognize it as being legitimate; Torah can be received only through revelation. However, God reveals to Moshe that he is mistaken, and Chazal interpret the verses as God's answer to him: "'Take it from them' – the initiative is theirs, it is from them." As Chazal see it, "from them" seems superfluous here, therefore they conclude that what God is telling Moshe is that it is possible to accept the gift even though the princes brought it on their own initiative and of their own free will, and not in response to God's command. In this way the Midrash connects the beginning to the end: "When you so wish – you need ask nothing, nor request anything." In other words, the generosity of spirit and the good will of Israel are their beauty and their praise.
Not only is such a mortal initiative acceptable; it actually becomes part of the Torah: the procedure for journeying is amended, because now there are wagons to help with the carrying of the Mishkan. Moreover, according to Chazal, God heaps praise upon the princes. The Mishkan is compared to the whole world, a microcosm of sorts, and the bearing of the Mishkan is like aid to God, Who bears the world on His shoulders, as it were. Through the princes' participation in the travels of the "microcosm," the hardship, as it were, of carrying the world is lessened.
Chazal's Interpretation and the Literal Meaning of the Verses
Does Chazal's interpretation fit the literal meaning of the text? Here too, as in many other instances, we must be cautious and avoid giving too simplistic an answer to this question.
On one hand, Moshe's thoughts are certainly not written in the verses, nor is the dilemma that Chazal describe presented explicitly. On the other hand, the midrash Chazal is based on the dissonance between the words, "They brought their sacrifice before the Mishkan" (end of verse 3), and the very next words – "And God said to Moshe, saying" (verse 4). After the text tells us that the princes brought sacrifices, we would expect the description to continue with the offering of the sacrifices. Instead, there is a sort of jump in the story: God speaks to Moshe without any approach by Moshe. Chazal feel the need to fill in this missing piece. If Moshe does not speak here, he must surely be thinking something. While his thoughts are not recorded explicitly in the Written Law, the Oral Law supplies them. Further support for Chazal's view is to be found in the relatively uncommon expression, "God said to Moshe," instead of the usual "God spoke to Moshe." Chazal understand this to be a gentler mode of expression:
"Since Moshe was afraid, he had to be answered in gentle language."
Moreover, a Midrash should never be understood only within its local context, since the midrashim of Chazal deal with ideas, principles and lessons that are derived from other places, too. I believe that in this case Chazal regard our unit as a sort of introduction to two other units in Sefer Bamidbar: the law of Pesach Sheni, and the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad. What is the connection between these units? To answer this question, let us examine the two other sources.
D. Two Stories With One Subject
Pesach Sheni, the daughters of Tzelofchad, and the similarity between them:
Bamidbar chapter 9:
(4) Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael, to perform the Pesach [sacrifice]…
(6) And there were people who were ritually impure through contact with a corpse, and they could not perform the Pesach on that day, and they came before Moshe and before Aharon on that day.
(7) And those people said to him: We are ritually impure through contact with a human corpse; why shall we be missing and not offer God's sacrifice at its appointed time, amongst Bnei Yisrael?
(8) So Moshe said to them: Stand, and I shall hear what God commands for you.
(9) And God spoke to Moshe, saying:
(10) Speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying: Any person who is impure …
Bamidbar chapter 27:
- And the daughters of Tzelofchad, son of Chefer, son of Gilad, son of Makhir, son of Menasheh, of the families of Menasheh, son of Yosef, came close – and these were the names of his daughters: Machla, No'a and Chogla and Milka and Tirtza.
- And they stood before Moshe and before Elazar, the kohen, and before the princes, and all of the congregation, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, saying:
- Our father died in the desert; he was not among the congregation who gathered together in the congregation of Korach, for he died in his own sin, and he had no sons.
- Why should our father's name be missing, amongst his family, because he has no son? Give us a possession amongst our father's brothers.
- So Moshe brought their cause before God.
- And God said to Moshe, saying:
- The daughters of Tzelofchad speak right…
The halakhic issues treated in these two parshiyot are very different from one another. The Pesach Sheni unit (Bamidbar 9) deals with the desire of a group of people who are ritually impure to take part in the Pesach sacrifice of all of Israel, and the solution provided for them is a "second chance" at Pesach. The second unit (Bamidbar 27) records the desire of the daughters of Tzelofchad to receive an inheritance in the land in order to establish the name of their late father upon an inheritance in Eretz Yisrael.
However, the difference between the two subjects does not detract from the remarkable similarity between them, in terms of both form and underlying principle:
a. Each of the two units gives voice to personal distress arising from a halakhic problem. The desire of the ritually impure to take part in the Pesach sacrifice cannot be realized, since God has forbidden them to do so, and the desire of the daughters to establish their father's name cannot be realized because the laws of inheritance that have been received thus far recognize only inheritance by men.
b. In both cases, the appeal is not for some personal benefit, but rather a moral aspiration. Offering the Pesach sacrifice and establishing the name of the deceased (like the commandment of yibum, levirate marriage) are both desirable acts according to halakha, but in the case of those who are ritually impure, and of the daughters of Tzelofchad, difficulty has arisen in the fulfillment of these laws, owing to their specific circumstances.
c. In both instances, those who come to appeal demonstrate a desire to be part of the nation and not to be pushed to the sidelines: the ritually impure ask, "Why should we be missing" from the rest of the nation in offering God's sacrifice, while the daughters ask why their father's name should "be missing" from those who take possession of their inheritances. The similarity also echoes in the expressions, "Amongst Bnei Yisrael" and "Amongst our father's brothers."
d. In both cases, Moshe could simply have rejected the appeal on the grounds of lack of any basis in the law. If God has not proposed any solution, then there is no solution. Moreover, Moshe could even have wondered at the very audacity of the demand to institute an "individualized" law and rebuked the appellants for their implied claim that the existing law, given by God, is not complete and perfect. However, Moshe – the humblest of men – behaves differently. With his great sensitivity he understands that exceptional cases must be addressed – obviously, on condition that the motives of the appeal are pure (as discussed in c. above). In the case of the Pesach sacrifice, Moshe tells the group that is impure, "Stand and I shall hear what God commands for you"; similarly, with regard to the daughters of Tzelofchad, we are told, "Moshe brought their cause before God."
e. In both cases there is another person with Moshe: in the instance of Pesach Sheni it is Aharon, while when the daughters of Tzelofchad approach, Elazar stands with Moshe (this takes place after Aharon's death).
f. In both cases, God acquiesces to the request. In Bamidbar chapter 9 the commandment of Pesach Sheni is given, while in chapter 27 God agrees with the claim of the daughters of Tzelofchad.
The striking connection between the two units demonstrates that their theme is one and the same: the Torah looks kindly upon initiative with positive intentions, even where it would appear to be seeking to act with no law guiding it – or even in opposition to an existing law, on condition that the appeal is made through the right channels.
Institution of Laws by Man
Now we must address the central question that arises from the above: if the appellants were indeed justified and praiseworthy in their appeals, why did God not simply command Moshe with regard to these issues, before the problems had a chance to arise? Why was there a need for a special appeal in order for God to instruct laws that in any case were "authentic"?
Rashi, commenting on the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad (Bamidbar 9:7), gives the classic answer:
"This matter was worthy of being uttered by Moshe, like all the rest of the Torah, but [the daughters of Tzelofchad] merited having it revealed through them, for merit is brought about through one who is meritorious."
In other words, essentially the law could have been conveyed earlier, but God wanted to give certain righteous people the merit of having the law being revealed through them.
I believe that we may offer a different explanation, based on the above Midrash (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba) concerning the gifts of the princes. There, Chazal establish firmly that "When you (the nation of Israel) so wish, you need not ask or request from anything (or anyone)."
In other words, human initiative that is proper and praiseworthy, performed for the sake of heaven and affected through the proper channels, may literally turn into Torah. Contrary to Moshe's view that Divine inspiration or prophecy are needed to reveal the Divine will, God tells him that the matter is theirs, it comes from them. People have the ability to reveal new insights in Torah, in the most concrete sense.
This is exactly what happens in the case of Pesach Sheni and the daughters of Tzelofchad. In these units the Torah teaches us a new way of laws being instituted and established: the source of the law, in essence, is not a prior command, but rather the human interpretation. However, as noted above, the interpretation alone is not sufficient to confirm it; it must be subjected to institutionalized review (Moshe and Aharon, or Moshe and Elazar), and be raised before God. If the request is accepted and approved, it is known by its initiators – not just as a gesture of polite acknowledgment, but because of its essence: it is they who have created it.
On this basis we may ask, what would have happened if these appeals had not been brought? Would the Torah ultimately not have included the law of Pesach Sheni, or instructed that in the absence of sons, daughters may inherit?
It seems to me that, theoretically, the answer is that without the earthly appeal on the part of the appellants from within Bnei Yisrael, these laws would indeed have been omitted from the Torah; it is the presentation of the problem and of the interpretation that represent the basis of the new law. We may offer halakhic support for this assumption. Firstly, the idea of Pesach Sheni is indeed revolutionary, since there is no other commandment that offers a second chance. Furthermore, we are familiar with the principle according to which "one who is forced (prevented through circumstances beyond his control) is exempt"; hence it would seem reasonable to conclude that a person who was ritually impure at the time of the Pesach sacrifice is unable (and not required) to fulfill that commandment. However, the appeal on the part of those who find themselves in that situation creates an entirely different situation: these people recognize that the Pesach sacrifice is a covenantal sacrifice, and that their absence from it – while formally justified – excludes them, in their consciousness and their emotions, from the nation of Israel. God recognizes the justice of the appeal, and introduces Pesach Sheni.
The same applies to the inheritance by the daughters of Tzelofchad. It is possible that, had the personal anguish of these women at their father's oblivion in the inheritance of the land not arisen, there would have been no need for the law; their genuine desire is the fundamental source of the new law.
E. The Oral Law within the Written Law
At this time of year we commemorate the giving of the Torah. The idea that we have discussed above has far-reaching implications for our understanding of the essence of Torah. We are accustomed to think of the Written Law as a closed system – a text including 613 commandments given to Moshe at Sinai, starting "In the beginning" and ending "The sight of all of Israel." After the conclusion and sealing up of the Written Law comes the creation of the Oral Law which, on one hand, is nourished by the Written Law, but on the other hand is constantly renewed and guided by the human quest for God's word; by man's difficulties and his initiatives, and by the new problems that arise within a changing reality. The Oral Law seems to be a dimension that is different and distinct from the Written Law.
In the texts that we examined above – the story of the wagons, the law of Pesach Sheni, and the daughters of Tzelofchad – we find the foundations of the Oral Law embedded within the Written Law. The Torah appears to be sealed and complete, but in the wake of human initiatives it changes; the appeals by various people turn into letters and words of Torah. In these instances, the accepted distinction - between the Written Law as a closed, sealed corpus and the Oral Law as a different world, existing on a different plane - is blurred. There is an "oral law" that is part of Moshe's Written Law; there is a "Torah originating from the people" that is part of the Torah from God!
I believe that this is the message of these narratives: God's word is never complete and sealed. God's Torah is endless and infinite, therefore it can be renewed at any time. Obviously, there are rules and institutions through which any change must come about, otherwise there is the danger of human initiative being mistaken, which is what happened in the case of Nadav and Avihu, who taught halakha in the presence of their teacher without consulting him. However, this does not nullify the fundamental idea of, "Take it from them; the matter has come from them."
The beauty of the nation of Israel is revealed through good will and initiative: "You are beautiful, my love, as Tirtza – when you wish." When their words are accepted, they are considered like the words of God Himself.
This very idea is presented by Rav Mordekhai Yosef of Ischbitz, author of Mei Ha-shiloach:
"'They brought their offering before God; six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two princes, and an ox for each of them, and they brought them before the Mishkan' – for truly they had great mercy on the Levi'im who had to carry this heavy burden, and did not know what to do, for [so such provision] was given by God's word to Moshe. [The princes] feared that the Levi'im would have to exert their bodies with the toil of the burden in order to purify their hearts. But sometimes a person's heart cannot be softened until he serves God bodily. So perhaps this mercy was not from God, but rather originated in their own feelings. In a place where God does not desire it, [such desire] is called 'the cruel mercy of wicked ones.' Therefore it was proper that every two princes would bring one wagon, for if two people do something then God agrees with them, as it is written, 'Through knowledge the righteous will be saved' – in other words, when two Torah scholars agree on the same opinion. 'And an ox for each one of them' – for 'if you grasp only a little, you will retain it in your grasp.' For no prince wanted to rely on his own opinion, but when he saw that his companion was in agreement, then they understood that the matter was from God. As it is written in Yirmiyahu, when Chanamel came and said to him, 'Buy [the field] for yourself,' then he said: 'I knew that it was from God,' as explained on the verse, 'And molten gods.' So when Moshe saw this [initiative on the part of the princes] he was quite astonished, and thought that God's word had been revealed to them without his knowledge, until God said to him, 'Take it from them' – in other words, it was not only of their own minds, and therefore 'Take it from them' – for their intention is an authentic reflection of My will. For it was My will that they would each offer one ox, and a wagon for every two princes."
Translated by Kaeren Fish
 The commentators obviously address these issues; their explanations are to be found mainly at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, at the beginning of chapter 7, and at the beginning of chapter 40 of Sefer Shemot.
 Admittedly, there is a certain difference between the two instances. The matter of the Pesach sacrifice requires a new Divine command, since the appellants are unable to observe the mitzva in accordance with existing halakha. In the case of the daughters of Tzelofchad, there is no need for a new halakha; rather, a legal ruling is required with regard to the existing halakha (i.e., whether daughters may inherit). Indeed, the expression "hakrava" ("bring close"), mentioned in connection with the daughters of Tzelofchad, is also found in other instances where a legal ruling is required: "A matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring close to me, and I shall hear it" (Devarim 1:17), and likewise, "The master of the house shall be brought close to the judges" (Shemot 22:7).
 See above, note 2.
 Rashi provides a similar explanation in the case of Pesach Sheni; see ad loc.